Sunday, January 10, 2016

Best Books Read in 2015, Part Two

A few more non-fiction works:

From Dom Bede Jarrett, a study of a Dominican saint and economics (S. Antonino and Medieval Economics):

Although the book refers to the saint and Medieval Economics in the title, Jarrett dedicates one chapter out of ten to "His Social Ideals". Jarrett provides a summary of St. Antonino's Summa Moralis on economic themes: Production, Distribution, and Consumption. The saint, who was Archbishop of Florence when Cosimo de Medici was resident in the Dominican convent of San Marco (which contains the great frescoes of Fra Angelico as referenced and illustrated above), writes about the moral aspects of commerce. He begins with the statement that riches are good and poverty is bad; riches are good because they allow a man to care for his family in relative security and comfort, provide for the common good, and give alms to the poor to alleviate their want. No one in a just state should be destitute of food, shelter, and clothing, but everyone must work according to their ability to support themselves and their families. Wealth also provides for the opportunity for prayer and meditation: riches are a means to good things, not an end. While good may be obtained through voluntary poverty (like that practiced by religious), poverty is not a good in and of itself.

St. Antonino did not expect or even suggest the even distribution of wealth, noting that inequality is part of Nature and while he joined in the universal condemnation of usury and was opposed to monopolies or cartels, he acknowledged that businessmen could and should make a profit, even on their invested capital, as it represents their industry and effort, not as money making money on itself. He condemns extravagance or conspicuous consumption: "For it is a sad thing to see, side by side, extravagance and penury, to see horses and mules gaily caparisoned while the poor perish from hunger; or in a plague-stricken city when the sick lie naked, cold, and foodless to find men and women dressed with vain and gaudy ornaments (II. 4, 4, vi. p. 581; II. 4, 5, ii. p. 591)" (p. 76). St. Antonino discusses the principles of just prices, just reward for labour, and just production and distribution of goods.

Our Greater Wichita chapter of the American Chesterton Society has been reading and discussing The Well and the Shallows two, three or four essays at a time for our monthly meetings at Eighth Day Books. Perhaps one of the best sections of this book was "My Six Conversions" in which Chesterton described some of the reasons he would become a Catholic if he wasn't one already:


AT least six times during the last few years, I have found myself in a situation in which I should certainly have become a Catholic, if I had not been restrained from that rash step by the fortunate accident that I was one already. The point is not merely personal but has some representative interest, because our critics constantly expect the convert to suffer some sort of reaction, ending in disappointment and perhaps desertion. As a rule, the most that they will concede to us is that we have found peace by the surrender of reason; which generally means in practice that we pass the rest of our lives in interminable controversies with a perpetual appeal to logic. But, as a fact, it is in a rather peculiar sense, the other way about. The strongest sort of confirmation often comes to the convert after he has received enough to establish conviction. In these articles I propose to discuss some examples of this singular sort of post-conversion conversion. I mean that things have happened, since I was received into the Church, which would in any case have rendered impossible any intellectual position outside the Church, and especially the position in which I originally found myself.

I did read some fiction in 2015. My husband and I read a Dean Koontz book, Lightning, out loud to each other. He had read it before but restrained himself from revealing the plot. The best thing about this book was how Koontz held off the explanation of the strange appearances of a sort of "guardian angel" in the protagonist's life.

Nancy Bilyeau sent me a review copy of The Tapestry, the third volume in her Tudor suspense trilogy:

In this novel, however, Henry has unraveled his own kingdom, setting factions against each other like colors in the pattern of Joanna's tapestries. Men and women are willing to do almost anything to remove him from power or keep him in power--the former was clear in The Chalice when Joanna almost participated in the murder of Henry VIII when he drank wine from a poisoned chalice--and the conspirators in this volume will even seek help from the occult to remove Thomas Cromwell from his position of influence on Henry VIII.

While Joanna is still in danger after Cromwell's fall and execution, Joanna recognizes that England is in even greater danger because nothing will stop Henry VIII. She realizes this when she sees Thomas Abel, Richard Featherston, and Edward Powell, three former chaplains and defenders of Queen Catherine of Aragon and Robert Barnes, Thomas Garrett, and William Jerome, three Lutheran supporters of Cromwell, drawn on sledges to Smithfield. The Catholics would be hung and quartered, while the Lutherans would be burned alive. According to Henry VIII, the first three are traitors, the second, heretics:

So King Henry VIII showed his true heart. He did not favor the Catholics, nor did he follow the Lutherans. It was impossible to understand him, to live safely in his kingdom. The removal of Cromwell had not made him a better man. There was something twisted--even diseased--in a mind that would command that the condemned be paired as opposites on the hurdles. How foolish Bishop Gardiner and the Howards were to think they could predict what King Henry would do--or control his actions.

When it is impossible to live safely in a kingdom, the King has failed because he is a tyrant.

I went back to read The Chalice, which I already had on Kindle, to understand the danger posed to Joanna throughout this novel. I found it an even more compelling read as Joanna was drawn into the so-called Exeter Conspiracy, the legacies of Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, and even the turmoil between Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire. Nevertheless, as this book weaves the past and present dangers together, it is a compelling read.

Joanna is always loyal to her family, even though she is sensitive to the slights she receives and the horrors she witnesses. In this novel, she does all she can for Catherine Howard as she fears for how she is being used by the Howards and by Henry VIII. She nearly always does what someone tells her what not do (or does not do what someone tells her to do) especially when Geoffrey Scovill tells her what not to do or what to do. If she should stay, she leaves; if she should go, she stays--but that's what drives the story forward.

Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpepper's story in The Tapestry matches in a way the story of the Courtenays and the Poles in The Chalice, although Bilyeau does omit the involvement and execution of Francis Dereham, in a way I think to build up Catherine's innocence--especially because Dereham experienced the full agony of being partially hung, eviscerated, and quartered.

Throughout this trilogy, Bilyeau provides excellent character studies of the historical figures from Henry VIII, so sad at the end, through the Princess Mary, and of course Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. She also demonstrates the effects the English Reformation was having on the common people, with whom Joanna lives in Dartford. They are experiencing--and will continue to experience--the changes in religion after the break from Rome. Bilyeau shows how the same unraveling that is taking place at the very top of English culture is also occurring among the common folk: the same hatred, opposition of Protestant vs. Papist (which everyone had been before in England), and the same spying and conspiring against one another. As Joanna knows, it is impossible to live safely in Henry VIII's kingdom. How she and the man she chooses (no other revelations here) will live without interference from Henry VIII and his successors remains either to to seen or is up to the readers' imagination.
The other great fiction read of 2015 was The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera:

It was cold and snowy on the First Sunday of Lent in Wichita, Kansas. We went to Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and then stopped for lunch. Once back in the house we were in for the day and I read The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera. I read it right through the WSU basketball game, two loads of laundry, and letting the dogs out (and in). At least two friends had recommended the book, one lent us his copy, and my husband had already read it.

Although the novel has many delights for any reader, I think that a reader who accepts the worldview of Benedictine monasticism, Thomist philosophy, and Chestertonian paradoxes will fit right in the village of San Ireneo de Arnois and appreciate the awakening that Miss Prudencia Prim needs. While it seems like a love story,
The Awakening of Miss Prim is really a conversion story (which would really be the same thing, right?) All of the people living and working in the village of San Ireneo de Arnois have converted, turned away from the modern world of acquisition and pressure to live in a community where leisure and education for children is the center of their activity. Miss Prim discovers that everyone plans their days and their work around the children and their well-being. Each shop is open only about six hours a day during the week and the proprietors, many of them women, manage their businesses to supply the needs of others the village, which is built next door to the Benedictine monastery. . . .

Catholicism and tradition are in the background throughout the story, but Fenollera does not catechize the reader. Miss Prim receives the catechesis slowly and organically, but the surprise of the novel is that she has to leave the village to understand what she's learned and how to live with it--and at the end she's ready to return and . . . --the author leaves it to us to imagine what Miss Prim does when she goes back to San Ireneo de Arnois to teach school.

I do think she should have named "the Man in the Wing Chair" but then other authors have played games with a main character's identity--Daphne Du Maurier never tells us the second Mrs. DeWinter's first name in
Rebecca, and Rose Macaulay famously teases the reader all through The Towers of Trebizond whether the protagonist/narrator is a woman or a man. Perhaps that's not such a flaw, after all.

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